Surgeon George Worgan, thirty-three, improbably managed to bring a piano with him on the First Fleet. In 1790 he gallantly began to tutor Elizabeth Macarthur, telling her she’d ‘done wonders in being able to play off God save the King and Foots Minuet’ and that she was ‘reading the Notes with great facility.’
Worgan went so far as to make Elizabeth a gift of the pianoforte upon his departure in 1791.
In early 1810 Elizabeth bought a pianoforte for £85 at an auction sale, presumably because the original piano no longer served. That old piano was then lost to history … or so I thought.
When I was in Sydney talking to the people at Sydney Living Museums they kindly alerted me to the following new publication: The First Fleet Piano: A Musician’s View by Prof Geoffrey Lancaster.
It’s an enormous beast of a book, stretching over two huge volumes. I think that’s it sitting on the piano, in the photo below.
When I returned home and searched the book up, I discovered that Elizabeth’s piano was not lost at all. In fact it is alive and well and living in Western Australia, part of a collection of 130 historic pianos donated to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) at Edith Cowan University by Sydney collector Stewart Symonds.
According to ABC Perth, the university plans to “send the First Fleet piano, along with a number of others from the collection, to master restorers in London so that the pianos, which are currently unplayable, can be used by students and researchers. They also want to send restorers from Western Australia to learn the restoration techniques, so future work on the pianos can be done locally.”
I hope they don’t restore the wonderful fingerprint marks off the keys, where it’s obvious that some were played more than others! What’s wrong with D, I wonder?
Can you go and see the piano? Well, probably, if you ask nicely, but it’s not on display. The University is currently sourcing philanthropic donations to build a space to house and display the whole collection.
Want to know more?
- I blogged about Elizabeth’s piano last year, in a post called Australian Colonial Dance.
- Try this article from ABC Perth (both photos are sourced from here)
- Or this article and clip from SBS
I do love a happy ending!
Michelle, I have read Geoffrey Lancaster’s book – both volumes – and I am underwhelmed by the evidence he presents for the Beck piano being the first fleet piano. As a lawyer, I am able to distinguish fiction from fact.
I have serious misgivings about the claim that the Beck piano is the First Fleet piano for the following reasons:
• The legs are too unusual – there is no satisfactory explanation as to why they were “so special”
• The woodwork, and in particular, the delicate Tunbridge-ware marquetry is completely undamaged, even though this piano came through on a sailing ship and the establishment of the colony
• The story about the piano being in a farmhouse in Windsor, when Windsor has had so many floods “doesn’t hold water” – again, consider the pristine condition of this piano!
• There is no written provenance from Bill Bradshaw, just word of mouth
Now, there is another piano that makes claim to the status of the first fleet piano. If you had read volume 2 of Lancaster’s book you would have noted that the piano has a very good claim – a better claim, in fact, than the Beck piano. This is the Longman & Broderip piano belonging to Brian Barrow in Sydney. Brian Barrow is a retired furniture restorer who had a lot to do with the antiques dealer Bill Bradshaw.
The reasons for my opinion are:
• There was a close connection between Longman & Broderip and Dr John Worgan, George Worgan’s father;
• The condition of the piano – it has suffered more than most pianos that still exist;
• The written provenance from Bill Bradshaw; and
• The continuum of family connections from the Macarthurs through to the Mathews family who sold the piano to Bill Bradshaw, who gave Brian Barrow a WRITTEN provenance for the Longman & Broderip piano.
I have uncovered a direct link in families from the Macarthurs to the family name Mathews who sold the Longman & Broderip piano to Bill Bradshaw, who then, eventually, sold it to Brian Barrow. The Royal Australian Historical Society is helping me with some of the detail on Parramatta, which needs to be added to my article about the pianos. I will publish it on my website when I have consulted the Barrow family. At the moment, you will not find anything on my website about pianos, so I have not left the name of it here.
Of course, it is quite likely that neither piano is the first fleet piano, and the one George Worgan brought with him to NSW has been lost. Did you pick up from Geoffrey Lancaster’s book that a Mr Worgan bought a Broadwood piano in 1783?
The plain fact is that until we uncover a diary or other document that states clearly the make and model of piano that George Worgan brought to NSW in 1787-1788, we cannot definitively identify which is the first fleet piano. Geoffrey Lancaster does acknowledge this, but then goes on the confuse everyone by talking about “George Worgan’s Beck piano”. At best this is misleading, at worst it is academically dishonest.
Elaine Phillips BSc LLB
Thanks Elaine, I agree that Lancaster’s provenance is pretty thin. Have you heard his interview with Richard Fidler? He’s a marvellous enthusiast, which perhaps carried him further than it should.
Hi Michelle, Yes, Geoffrey Lancaster is a great enthusiast, but I fear he has been led down the garden path. I am a distant relative of Brian Barrow, who owns the Longman & Broderip piano. I am not close enough for it to matter if I thought his claim on the title of the owner of the “First Fleet Piano” was spurious. I also love Geoffrey Lancaster’s recitals and one of his recordings is one of my favourites, so it is with heavy heart that I have had to say that Lancaster’s claim has real whiskers on it. I have been consulting my cousin Brian, and David Hackett of the “Friends of Square Pianos” website, as well as the records available to me in the Mitchell Library and the Royal Australian Historical Society, and it seems to me that Brian’s claim is better than Lancaster’s. We are all very nervous about his reliance on the “hinged cabriole legs” as being the, well, “lynchpin” in his claims. I fear Lancaster has been too trusting on hearsay. It is telling in a way that Bill Bradshaw (the antiques dealer who sold the Beck piano to collector Stewart Symonds, who then donated the piano to Lancaster’s place of employment, the WAAPA) would not grant Lancaster a meeting before he died. My cousin Brian knew Bill Bradshaw very well, and Bill said quite a lot about all the spurious Windsor claims to Brian, when he realised the whole thing would come back and haunt Brian. I prefer not to rely on hearsay, but on documents and records if possible. I’ll bring up the hearsay if that’s what is necessary! Basically, I urge anyone who thinks Lancaster’s claims are OK to look at the records of huge floods in Windsor.
I am Brian Barrow’s younger brother and have also been keenly interested in trying to verify the provenance of his Longman and Broderick Square Piano.
I am also keen to alert readers that Geoffrey Lancaster’s assertions that the Beck piano kindly donated to Edith Cowan University, Perth, by Mr Stewart Symonds, to be Australia’s First Piano, is pure speculation and without any solid foundation.
I listened to Richard Vidler’s Conversation with Professor Lancaster on 21st February, 2018 and provided feedback to Mr Vidler urging caution regarding the claims made in relation to the Beck piano. I received a response to my feedback from the program’s producer, Nicola, thanking me for my comments and acknowledging that “it is really important” for the ABC to receive the feedback that I provided. In addition, Nicola promised to amend the text in the story to reflect my comments. Unfortunately I can’t see where transcripts of programs broadcast are available, to see if that actually happened.
In a subsequent email to Nicola I emphasised my concern that “supposition and hearsay does not in time become “established fact” as so often becomes the case” and for which this story is a likely candidate.
I gave two examples, (but there are many more) citing Geoffrey Lancaster’s publication where it is very apparent that his postulations require scrutiny and common sense would dictate that they need to regarded with scepticism.
The first was when Bill Bradshaw sold the Beck piano to Stewart Symonds in October 1986. Apart from giving a provenance almost identical to when he sold the Longman and Broderick piano case to my brother in May 1969, when Symonds paid a deposit to Bradshaw, Bradshaw asked Symonds “not to brag about it” (referring to the provenance that Bradshaw had attributed) and not to make a noise about owning the instrument or in relation to the instrument’s provenance”.
This is quoted ( one could cynically say “buried”!) in Lancaster’s publication in Chapter 15, page 709. A statement like this should immediately raise major alarm bells regarding the veracity of Bradshaw’s story to Symonds and that the Beck has any legitimacy to the claims currently being made.
It is also particularly intriguing that by October 1986, “Bicentennial Fever” was building across the country. Why would this “priceless national treasure” be wrapped in secrecy? Surely the “discovery” of Australia’s First Piano coming to light at that particular time would have been an absolute coup for the Arts Council, National Trust, Historical Society, Elizabeth Farm etc.?The list could go on. The sad reality is that the provenance Bradshaw gave can only be considered a good “sales pitch”, given there is no documentation whatsoever to support it.
The second quote that I alerted Nicola to is contained in the same chapter where Lancaster stated that “it is reasonable to speculate that the Beck piano’s Windsor-related / First Fleet Piano provenance is a fabrication”. I leave it you to decide how much of the massive publication is fact and how much is unsubstantiated speculation.
So in conclusion, I urge caution by all readers that the First Fleet Piano is a Beck as claimed by Professor Lancaster and is now located in Western Australia.
Until such time as verifiable evidence naming the make/model/style of George Worgan’s piano, the one that we know he gave Elizabeth Macarthur when he returned to England in 1791, comes to light, it is still very much “an open case”.
Thank you Philip, for this comprehensive overview.
I have finally got my version of the First Fleet Piano story up on my website, lochista.com, so I can give you the address (see below). Also couple of comments: firstly in the comment above, Phillip Barrow was sabotaged by spellcheck – the piano he refers to is a Longman & Broderip piano, and of course we all know and love Richard Fidler. Never heard of Richard Vidler! Secondly, I have been at pains to get all my facts substantiated by documents in my piano story on my website. If more information comes available, I will add it.
Thank you for your lovely book about Elizabeth Macarthur. It certainly paints a detailed picture of how life was for Elizabeth – someone to be admired by the way she conducted herself in the new colony, given the problems she faced. Perhaps I have gone a little radical by saying that I think Elizabeth should have paid £25 for the second piano, identified by the AustralHarmony website as being a Broadwood square piano, sent to Thomas Laycock about 10 years earlier. Someone either made a mistake or deliberately defrauded Elizabeth when she was charged £85 for that piano. It was NOT worth that much, even in NSW at the time! I suspect Garnham Blaxcell of the fraud or mistake, but I don’t have any evidence to prove it, so I’ve just left it to the reader to decide.
Thanks Elaine, this is terribly helpful. And I’m so glad you enjoyed the book – thanks for reaching out and letting me know.